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Where car is king

They drive to the neighborhood pool. They drive to the neighborhood park. They drive to their children’s school, to their children’s activities, to their children’s games. They drive to work, to restaurants, to the store for a gallon of milk.

But the Lathams don’t really mind. Because they live in Lenexa, where an abundance of thoroughfares and highways get them to most places in a matter of minutes.

This ease of access helped lift Lenexa to the No. 5 ranking in The Kansas City Star’s analysis of suburbs’ quality of life.

“We liked this area because it wasn’t congested and it had easy access to the interstates,” Allen says from his home in western Lenexa.

The Star compared suburbs in almost two dozen statistical measures, grouped into nine major categories, and the automobile was one of them. Lenexa was the only Johnson County city outside the inner-ring suburbs to have one of the 10 best average commute times. Also, Lenexa finished among the top three suburbs in capital improvement spending, mainly for roads.

“It makes Lenexa like a close-in location,” says Barbara Radzevich, a Realty Executives real estate agent in Johnson County. “One of the things I hear a lot is, ‘I want to be strategically located.’ They want to be able to reach any pocket of the metro area in 15 minutes to a half-hour, and that’s what makes Lenexa an incomparable address.”

Indeed, Lenexa is generally shaped like a rectangle and it’s bordered and bisected by highways: Interstate 35 along the east edge and Kansas 10 along the south, plus Interstate 435 and Kansas 7 running through it. These allow a resident to reach destinations such as downtown, the airport or even Lawrence in about a half-hour.

Then there are the through streets that crisscross the city: Quivira, Pflumm and Lackman roads north-south, as well as 87th Street Parkway and 95th Street-Prairie Star Parkway east-west.

This transportation network has additional ripple effects. With so many major intersections and interchanges, Lenexa has attracted a high share of strip malls, ranking sixth among local suburbs in retail sales per capita. And with the sales taxes from those businesses, Lenexa has been able to keep its property taxes pretty low compared to other suburbs.

Throughout its history, Lenexa has been linked with transportation. The original town, in fact, was established around a railroad depot. The tracks were laid next to where the Santa Fe Trail went by. Decades later, Lenexa’s European immigrant farmers used that railroad to ship their famous spinach to eastern markets. Then Lenexa exploded as a suburb after the interstate highway system passed through, following the same general path as the railroad and the trail.

“This is a city that was formed because of transportation — the railroad — and it has grown and prospered because of transportation,” says Ron Norris, director of Lenexa’s public works department, in charge of streets. “We are really kind of lucky. As much as people would like to credit foresight and planning, it’s a fortunate happenstance of geography.”

That is, the city happened to be located where highways were planned. Despite that, Lenexa hasn’t suffered from higher crime like some other outer suburbs with highways running through them. Lee’s Summit and Bonner Springs had some of the worst suburban crime trends between 2001 and 2003, while Lenexa had one of the best.

Overall, Lenexa earned its top 10 ranking in The Star’s analysis because of high scores across an array of comparisons. It is strong at the high school level. It gives home buyers lots of choices between newly constructed homes or the tree-shaded charm of older neighborhoods. And it offers plenty of recreational opportunities, from its well-known festivals to a skate park.

It only finished among the lowest-ranked suburbs in a couple of ways. One of those, though, related to its roadway network — traffic accidents per capita.

The automobile and suburbia have always been inextricably linked, but some public policy analysts increasingly believe the suburbs are too auto-dependent. They point to national research showing traffic congestion is worsening, driving is making Americans fatter and vehicle ownership is taking an ever bigger bite out of household budgets.

Households spent $1 out of every $7 on transportation in 1960, but $1 out of every $5 now because we’re driving more than ever and gas isn’t getting any cheaper.

Except most people actually prefer this way of life. Driving typically takes less time and offers more convenience than public transit or walking.

Earlier this decade when the U.S. Department of Transportation asked Americans about their community’s transportation options, those who were satisfied outnumbered those who were dissatisfied by 3 to 1. When asked which transportation features were important in choosing a place to live, respondents cited ease of driving twice as much as availability of public transit.

That’s especially true in the suburbs.

The Lathams can relate. They couldn’t imagine their modern lifestyle without the automobile. Kids and parents are busier today than when they were growing up in a small town. And Lenexa makes getting around easier.

From home in the Falcon Ridge subdivision in the western half of the city, Allen works some 30 miles away at Cerner Corp. in the Northland. He heads up I-435 and it takes him just over a half hour to get there. During most weeks, he travels out of town. He takes I-435 straight to the airport.

Kelli stays at home and shuttles her 8-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son to their activities in the minivan.

Girls volleyball is at the Mid-America West Sports Complex in western Shawnee. She treks up Kansas 7.

Cub Scouts is at an Olathe elementary school. She scoots onto Kansas 10.

And on weekends, there are flag football games and cheerleading in south Johnson County. A few minutes out of the house and the family’s on I-35.

“I live out of my van,” Kelli says. “I have snacks and drinks and games. It’s a mini house on wheels.”

To the Lathams, it’s all about tradeoffs. They live in a newer house with an expansive back yard in a place almost out in the country, which appeals to their small-town roots. But because of all that, they have to use their cars to go everywhere.

“If that’s the price of having all the other things we have,” Allen says, “then it’s worth it.”

Population: 42,615.

What’s with the name: According to legend, it comes from the name of Shawnee Chief Thomas Blackhoof’s wife, who was recorded as both Na-Nex-Se and Len-Ag-See.

The spinach thing: Spinach really was important in the city, which was farmed by German, Swiss and Belgian families — but not until the 1930s did Lenexa become famous for its superior quality spinach.

Let’s party: The early 1980s saw the birth of both the annual Spinach Festival and the Great Lenexa Barbeque Battle, which started with 12 contestants. More than 180 teams now compete.

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